Friday, November 2, 2018

In living color.

There is so much that is unfair and wretched in the world, that I hesitate to describe the unfairness I encountered late last night, reading The New Yorker. But I will.

It was an article by Margaret Talbot about the discomfiting and often disregarded fact that the ancient Greek statues and Greek buildings were not pristine white. They were painted. Painted colors. Those lustrous white marble torsos, those pure Ionic capitals, those Classic pediments, gleaming white under the Mediterranean sun. They do not represent what the Greeks created, what the ancient Greeks saw each day. “The idea that the ancients disdained bright colors “is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art.””
It was not a misconception held by my mother. Years ago, as long as I can recall, she knew that the ancient Greeks and Romans painted their statues and facades. Not only did she know it, she insisted on it. She drilled into us that they were painted, that they were anything but pristine white marble. They were in fact polychromatic, lively, bright, even gaudy. If we, her children, learned anything from our mother (and we certainly learned much) we learned about the polychromatic Greek statuary. Also fenestration.
The unfairness lies in the timing of this wonderful article. My mother will not read this article. She will not enjoy the satisfaction of having known of ancient poly-chromaticism all along. She will not make multiple photocopies of the article to send to all her children and selected other relatives and friends, even though we have explained to her multiple times about the merits of simply emailing a link to a given article, and thereby saving paper, postage, etc.
When I read this article about the painted Greek statues, all I wanted to do was talk to my mother, to revel with her in this affirmation of what she had been telling us all along.

But I will not talk to my mother about this article. She is still here, but she is gone. The mother who was so bossy and confident and correct about colors, is gone. The mother who believed that all her grandchildren needed to know that the large front window at the Orchard was a Palladian window, and what that meant, is gone. The mother who encouraged me to paint, just below the kitchen molding, a wide band of a certain intense blue, Izniak tile blue, she is gone. Benjamin Moore, not having the benefit of my mother’s color knowledge, called it “Big Mountain Blue”. However named, the blue is still there, and it looks marvelous. She was so right about that blue.

As an architectural historian, and also a color consultant, my mother made it her business to know what colors were ‘appropriate’ and ‘historically correct’ for your house, your living room, even your bathrooms. In New England, where the slavish devotion to white clapboard approaches cult status, there were brave souls who strove for something more, something with color, and they paid my mother. They paid her real consulting fees to tell them what historically appropriate colors they should paint their houses.
I enjoyed this fact, because of course my mother told me what to do, for free. Gratis. Without a fee, my mother told me what color to paint my house, what color I should dye my hair (I balked, and prevailed), and what color clothing would suit my sallow Belgian complexion. About paint colors, she was invariably right. That is, she chose wonderful colors that
I would never have had the courage, or imagination, to choose. She steered me away from pastels, and I have never looked back.

The current article in the New Yorker, which I recommend, makes an additional point about the painting of Greek statues that even my mother could not have predicted*. Slithering in, on ancient polychromatic cat feet, are political implications. “Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to the Greeks. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.”**

My mother still knows her colors, some of them, most of the time. She remains very fond of blue.

*Though I may be not properly crediting her. Another thing my mother always insisted on, in the matter of representational art, was that Jesus was not ‘white’. My mother grew up in Cairo. She loved the Middle East. She was well aware that a young man from Galilee was not likely to be the paleface so revered in Western iconography.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

My Rant about Black Walnuts and their Drupes

Have I ranted about the black walnut* missile attacks before? Most likely. Most likely I do so on a biannual basis. Specifically, during mast years.
It’s been a great year for black walnuts, Juglans nigra, and for squirrels.** It has been a tragic year for my driveway, my back porch, and for CSB’s windshield.

Yes, I know that the black walnut tree is native, and native plants are good. I also know that the wood of black walnut trees is beautiful and valuable.

My gripe is with the fruits of the tree: the drupes. ***

We have tried, really tried, to find uses for black walnuts, to justify their existence, and in particular justify their voluminous existence in front of my house. You should never, ever, on any planet, on any continent, plant a black walnut tree near your house or driveway. Because, as Richard Powers says in The Overstory, they are “Trees that bomb the ground so only their young can grow.” What he doesn’t say is that their bombs can stain the wood on your back porch, puncture of your car, cause concussions, and sound like fireworks when they hit the driveway.

The problem with the black walnut drupes is exacerbated during wet and windy weather, the autumnal storms which we are experiencing in unprecedented profusion. With the rain the black walnuts become saturated and heavier, and with the wind the branches flail about and broadcast the black walnuts. Here at Let it Bee farm they bombard the back porch where they splatter on impact and stain not only the wooden planks but the white clapboard to a height of over 8 feet. They pour down on any patch of dirt aspiring to grow anything but Juglans nigra. They fall on the driveway by the thousands; and they attack any car foolish enough to be parked within the dripline. These foolish cars end up with pockmarked roofs and hoods, and recently, a shattered windshield. When cars drive over the black walnuts on the driveway – because we can’t spend every minute of every day shoveling them up with an industrial strength snow shovel – the bursting of the drupes sounds like machine gun fire.

Why do we put up with this tree, in the bosom of our abode? Exactly how idiotic are we? Would not a normal, well-adjusted, rational person chop the tree down, stack up the wood, and plant a benign azalea there instead? I often ask myself: what would a normal, well-adjusted person do in this circumstance [take your pick: recalcitrant chickens, political crises, randy squirrels on the roof, dementia]?
I often bemoan the phenomenon in electoral politics whereby huge swaths of the voting public appear to vote against their own best interests.
Yet here we are, living under the tyranny of the Juglans nigra, every year, and especially every other or mast year, complaining bitterly about the mess and the noise and threat of concussion. We could chop the tree down. CSB’s chain saw is not big enough, but there are plenty for excellent arborists who would happily come and take down this old tree, in stages, at some cost. We could even defray the cost of having the tree taken down by selling the wood: according to the all-knowing Internet, a single tree can be worth $20,000.

But we don’t chop it down, and we will not. Because it is a tree that belongs to this continent that has already spent (possibly) one hundred years growing in that spot. I have not spent one hundred years doing anything consistently.

As for justifying the black walnut’s existence in our particular spot, I read recently in Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful The Hidden Life of Trees, that the same compound (Juglone - a natural herbicide) that prevents other plants from growing in its vicinity, is considered so unpleasant by mosquitoes that “Garden lovers are often advised to put a bench under a canopy of walnuts….where they will have the least chance of being bitten by mosquitoes.” He makes no mention of the danger of sitting on that bench in the autumn, when the drupes are hailing down. I have to admit that we are rarely afflicted by mosquitoes when dining on the back porch all summer long.

*I will make a point of referring to the black walnuts that populate my yard as black walnuts, to distinguish them from the walnuts you buy in the grocery store and put in brownies, or not, depending on your familial preferences, which are European walnuts, Juglans regia, also of the Juglandaceae family, but so much easier to open.

**Factoid: Black walnuts make up 10% of the diet of an eastern squirrel. That is true in many places, except my yard, where they make up at least 50%.

***Drupes are “ fleshy fruits with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed”
This word is so delightful, and so much fun to say aloud, that it almost reconciles me to the Assault of the Drupes. But no, it doesn’t really. Other excellent words related to drupes are: drupaceous, drupelets**** and indehiscent.

*****My favorite of the drupe set of words.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Springtime on the Front Porch, tucked inside the Boxwood

April 24May 4May 7May 10May 13May 14May 15May 16May 17May 18May 20 The fledglings have flown. Here lies the empty nest.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Choose a Title

During recent meetings about Leigh Fibers, textile waste processing company in Spartanburg, SC, I learned quite a lot about the challenges of the recycling industry. Nothing is easy when you are dealing with junk.

You do realize that the cheaper virgin materials are, the less like likely industries are to recycle or buy recycled products? For example, when oil is cheap, the interest in recycling used polypropylene drops through the trapdoor.

That is just one of the many depressing facts I learned in our 17th floor conference room.

But, honoring the delightful signage on the factory floor that a decade ago gave me Sort Quench, and Dump, I gathered a few other random phrases from the arcane world of recycling and manufacturing, always looking for interesting titles. Titles for what? That remains to be seen.
These are what I came with. I welcome your comments, and favorites.







Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why Kentucky? Why the Falklands?

Like certain sexually transmitted diseases, the archive that is the pile of still-unsorted papers from the Orchard has proved to be the Gift that keeps on Giving.

Yes, we moved Mom out of the Orchard 3 years ago, and we sold the house 2 years ago. But, in her valiant effort to empty the house in time for the sale, my sister took hundreds of pounds of unsorted files and papers back to Maine with her, to sort at leisure. A very funny concept of leisure, it is true.

Over the years some of us have enjoyed the wide variety of weird solicitations that come in over the transom for my mother. And for the past 3 years my sister and I have been fielding, ambushing, and then jettisoning said weird solicitations.

We were pretty inured to supplications from Little Sisters of this and that, the Needy Orphans of Cairo, as well as the Fund to Save the Gothic Revival Outhouses of Western Massachusetts, or the Steering Committee for 2035 - Celebrating 400 Years as Bucket-Town, even the Society for the Reinstatement of New Belgium in the New World. We thought nothing could surprise us.
Wrong, again.
My sister just shared with me this personalized solicitation that my mother received in 1982. And then saved for the next 30+ years.

Why Kentucky and the Falklands? Yes, I know about conflict between Argentina and the British. I just don't know what Kentucky has to do with it, or why. Thus, I have wasted several hours researching the two regions and am no closer to an answer. But I do now know a few things about Kentucky and the Falklands.

While the population of the Falklands hovers around the 3,000 mark, Kentucky has 4.4 million inhabitants: in both cases most of the residents trace their ancestors to the British Isles.

Kentucky has more miles of navigable rivers than any other state in the US. It has also the two largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi, and the longest cave system in the US. The Falklands are 0% water, but – predictably – are entirely surrounded the Atlantic Ocean.

Kentucky has horse racing, bourbon, tobacco, coal, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Falklands have sheep. Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. The Falklands have five varieties of penguins (King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Macaroni and Magellanic) and some very large albatross colonies.

The entirety of the Falkland Island print media consists of The Teaberry Express and The Penguin News. Kentucky has colorfully-named conflicts: The Beaver Wars of the 1670’s, and the Black Patch Tobacco Wars of the twentieth century.

The Kentucky state seal features two men facing each other in what we can only hope is friendship; one is wearing buckskins, the other is wearing formal tails. The Falkland Islands seem to have two coats of arms: one depicts a sheep, while the other pictures a somewhat misshapen seal.

It is unclear whether my mother sent money to the Kentucky Committee for the Falkland Islands. Who was this person, this Kentuckian, so obsessed with the valiant Falklanders? And why should anyone else care? His solicitation strikes me as equivalent to me hitting up everyone I am connected to on Linked In and everyone they are connected to, for the Fund to Pay Groundskeepers for the Holy Wells of Dubious Historicity in Brittany and Wales.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Pleasure of Random Reading

I’ve written about it before, a year ago more or less, but it is no less true now than then, that one of the most pleasurable aspects of a week spent in Aquiares is reading at random.

It would not be an overstatement to say that reading is an enormous, and an enormously important, part of my life.

Much of my reading is project oriented. For instance, I have lately been reading Hungarian novels because I have created a character in my novel who is Hungarian. I have never been to Hungary, not do I know much about Hungary (current politics are rather unfortunate, so I read), but I believe that through novels I will gain an understanding of what it is to be Hungarian. Hence: Szabo, Esterhazy, Banffy and several whose names I cannot spell.

Likewise, with a reading group led by the remarkable and remarkably Proustian Anka Muhlstein, I am making my way through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (about 60 pages to go), which led me to Chateaubriand, my latest crush. Also to Proust and the Squid, which isn’t really about Proust but about reading itself.

I particularly like guide books and reference books. Anything about reptiles and snakes in Costa Rica is appreciated.

The existence of this blog notwithstanding, I rarely read on a screen, especially small screens. I always have a small paperback in my handbag, because you never know when you will be stuck in a traffic jam or an airport or the checkout line at Costco. (Unlike Foodtown, where the magazine stand allows me to catch up on the peccadillos of celebrities I have never heard of.)

I feel about reading books the way others might feel about running, or eating chocolate: a non-reading life is not worth living.

So when I arrive at Aquiares, after making sure the volcano is still smoking, the first place I go is the bookshelf. Volcan Turrialba, seen from the Esperanza patio, and closer up, from the road to Irazu.
This past visit I discovered a novel by the poet James Schuyler, Alfred and Guinevere, about siblings who spend the summer with their grandmother and Uncle Saul, and are largely left to their own devices. It is simply brilliant. Then I picked up John Buchan’s Greenmantle and got about 50 pages into it before I realized it wasn’t necessary to continue; a little stiff-upper-lip, self-congratulatory, Brittania-rules-the-waves, can go a very long way. It felt perfectly acceptable to abandon Richard Hannay to his heroism, and turn to Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. This story of four single people, two men and two woman, who work together in an office that will soon become redundant, and their circumscribed lives, is rendered with exquisite and often painful tenderness and exactitude. My reading was enhanced by the pithy and witty marginalia of another sister-in-law, Fritz. After that I thought I would give mysteries a try, and there was Sue Grafton’s G is for Gullible. No, I just checked on-line, it is G is for Gumshoe. Either way, I couldn’t finish it. Her detective’s earnest heartiness became a little cloying, so I guiltlessly abandoned her and discovered Dawn Powell’s memoir, My Home is Far Away. This was not for the faint of heart. Anyone embarking on step-motherhood could find in those pages the absolute worst you could be. Lastly, I plucked Nabokov’s Transparent Things, which I had most likely read decades ago during my Nabokov-obsessive period, but even so, just in the first 10 pages I had to consult the dictionary four times and was rendered befuddled (I still am) by “unintentional pun” on page 14.* What could be better?

I wasn’t the only one reading at random. My sister-in-law, Sandra, was seen quietly laughing over Alfred and Guinevere, and then devoured several Barbara Pym’s. Even CSB, having dutifully read our book club selection, found some Faulkner that beckoned him. Only my brother Carl resisted the temptations of the bookshelf, and kept plugging along at Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I encouraged this, because I hoped to have him explain it to me. It is not exactly brief. Carl highly recommends the illustrated version.

We left Aquiares sadly, but one consolation was realizing that there remain several books, unchosen by me, that look intriguing. Until next year.

*3 Photos

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Passion in a Village on the Side of a Volcano

The last time we were in Aquiares, a coffee farm on the slopes of Volcan Turrialba in Costa Rica, for Semana Santa (holy week), was almost forty years ago.

That first Semana Santa, my daughter was just learning to walk, and she practiced her steps on the dirt roads from our house, called Esperanza, to the Aquiares village church, where small girls in home-made saint costumes, were carried aloft on wooden platforms by their older brothers and fathers. Now all my daughter’s children walk and run, and I limp.

More recently the Aquiareños decided to mount the whole Passion story over the course of the three days leading up to Easter.

I have certainly heard of Passion plays all my life. I did after all go to a lamentable Catholic school where the only subject taught was religion, and even that badly. And in my hagiographic period I sought out and admired many saintly relics of dubious veracity and taste. But I had never seen a Passion play. What exactly did I expect?

Thursday evening we walked down to the playground where we found the table set for the Last Supper, on the basketball court. This proved to be a convenient choice, as there was existing lighting. An extravagantly bewigged and bearded Jesus entered from stage left, followed by his twelve apostles, with their names written in large letters on sashes across their chests. This being the 21st century, even in a small Costa Rica village, several of the apostles were played by young women. Then bread was eaten and wine was drunk, and words were said, words that that had been said thousands upon thousands of times before. Then Judas – a much coveted role – snuck out to meet with the Roman soldiers and tell them how he would identify Jesus with a kiss. For this, he got his 30 pieces of silver.

Judas returned to the basketball court, kissed Jesus and set the betrayal in motion. The Roman soldiers rushed the stage and took him away. I am sorry we have no more pictures, but it was quite dark by then and I had only a cellphone camera.

Good Friday was the big event. It was drizzling. We had Gallo Pinto, huevos, mangoes and papaya for breakfast, and headed up the Cuesta Dura hill. A large portion of the village was there, but not everyone. (Even Aquiares has a few Evangelicals, and presumably they would not be caught dead at a Catholic Passion Play.) People raised umbrellas or went back to their houses to get umbrellas. Mothers adjusted their children’s costumes. It was hard to tell when the action began. Then it did. Soldiers marched back and forth, very seriously, very much in step with the drummers drumming.

A word about the Roman soldiers: there were dozens of them, in age ranging from six to forty-six. They all wore tunics, capes, fitted pants, and soldierly boots. They all carried shields emblazoned with SPQR or a crab. They all wore silver helmets topped with broom bristles in a variety of colors. (Here, as previously seen in the Aquiares ‘super’.) Many soldiers had leather wristlets, and many others carried swords. Others drummed.

The soldiers brought Jesus out, his face almost completely obscured by his extravagant wig. His brown tunic was now marked with red paint. They flogged him with sponges attached to sticks. He made all the noises of pain, and a few children started to wail. If any young parents were questioning whether this spectacle was likely to traumatize their children, they did not make themselves known. The procession commenced, as it did nineteen hundred and eight-five years ago, with Roman soldiers marching, locals watching, commenting, greeting each other, and Jesus carrying the wooden cross. Along the way, various women stopped the procession and spoke to Jesus, often at length. It did not go unnoticed, by me, that all the long monologues were performed by young women. Halfway down the hill, Simon of Cyrene was enjoined by the Roman soldiers to help Jesus with the cross. And so we processed through the village of Aquiares, past houses of old friends, past sleeping dogs and lost shoes, past a pulperia and the ‘Super’ Mercado, past the tailler and the beneficio, to the churchyard. There, behind a scrum of Roman soldiers spreading wide their cloaks, Jesus was laid upon the cross that had been fashioned by the local carpenter earlier that week, with a platform for standing and straps to hold up his arms, in lieu of nails. More soldiers pulled the cross upright with ropes, and the well-known words were spoken, and a vinegar-soaked sponge was offered, and thus ended the day’s events.

What was our place in all this? The idle spectators? The gringos? The local populace? The interlopers? The Philistines?
Obviously, it is not every day that Jesus is crucified. It is also just an ordinary drizzling day in the village of Aquiares, and neighbors are chatting, and mothers are making sure their kids have snacks, and chickens are squawking on patios, and everyone, including the priest, is taking pictures on cellphones.

That evening, the evening of good Friday, after the crucifixion CSB had trouble breathing. He couldn’t catch his breath. It was troubling enough that, after ascertaining that the local doctora was away from the farm, we headed for the nearest emergency room.
There, in the waiting room at the William Taylor Allen Hospital there was a flat screen television mounted in a corner, showing Ben-Hur. With the sound off. At first I didn’t know it was Ben-Hur, or what it was. I guessed Spartacus (Roman soldiers, ancient times, hunky actor) but I was wrong: that was another movie, with another actor. Even in a Turrialba waiting room, it is possible to Google “Charlton Heston, movie with Roman Soldiers” and quickly discover Ben-Hur.
Like the Roman soldiers in Aquiares, the soldiers in the movie wore tunics, fitted pants and capes. Their shields bore the letters SPQR or the image of a crab. They wore silver helmets, and maybe the costume department at Universal had not refashioned brooms to create their bristly comb, but the effect was the same as in Aquiares.
The health care was excellent and unbelievably cheap. It took a long time to get all the necessary tests read, but even so, we did not see the end of Ben-Hur.
I hear the movie ends well. CSB also is feeling much better.